What’re youse lookin’ at, Meathead?: Locating Archie Bunker Across Archives
Kimberly Springer / Williams College
With Archie and Edith Bunker’s living room chairs are permanently housed in the Smithsonian, alongside one of the Fonz’s leather jackets, All in the Family (1971-1979), is considered integral to television heritage and notions of classic TV. In his book Rerun Nation, Derek Kompare calls the 1970s the “beginning of television’s historicity, that is, its articulation into discourses of history and memory.” ((Derek Kompare, Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television (New York: Routledge, 2005), 102.)) Marking the ways in which television memories and broader postwar memories unite to create a common television heritage, “past television is now protected and exploited as both private and public property, through copyright and continued cultural recirculation.” ((Ibid., 103.)) The proliferation of media formats and outlets in the past twenty-years recontextualize Lear’s most popular sitcom, All in the Family, and reconfigure the icon that is his most famous character, Archie Bunker.
Lear brought civil rights, gay rights, black nationalist, and women’s liberation issues into American living rooms through humor as opposed to newscasts. The Bunkers didn’t shy away from commenting on bigotry, unemployment, Watergate, sexual assault, environmental degradation, and a host of other topics confronting a nation a bit stunned in the aftermath of 1960s turbulence. In offering this commentary, Lear sought to balance Archie’s conservative and often bigoted views with his son-in-law, Mike, and daughter, Gloria, whose perspectives were at the opposite end of the spectrum. When those right versus left arguments seemed to reach an impasse, Lear could insert Archie’s wife, Edith’s, often naïve, but incisively heartfelt commentary to show the error in Archie’s thinking.
All in the Family archival materials, and the context in which they have gained new life with recent technologies, play with this authorial intent. Available archival sources for All in the Family include: university and non-profit film and television archives; the occasional cable TV marathons with Lear curating; DVD box sets ((Currently, the DVD releases seem to have stalled with seasons one through six available. There is no new information as to the release of seasons seven, eight, and nine.)) ; the 2009 Norman Lear Collection ((This DVD box set included the first season of seven of his sitcoms and new interviews with series actors.)) ; video clips on the boutique channel, TVLand, and its attendant website; and an emerging YouTube archive. ((The most prolific YouTube uploader of Lear sitcoms is the channel.)) All of these archives are incomplete in their own way, impacting the interpretation of the sitcom’s legacy. And, yet, the editing of clips for contemporary consumption, the composition of DVD box sets, and user-edited YouTube postings provide important indicators for contemporary approaches, or avoidances, of the social issues Lear brought to the American table for discussion. Which archive takes precedence for determining the impact of Lear’s sitcoms on the viewing public? How does that notion of a viewing and actively discoursing public change with new media and its active audience of editors, remixers, and commenters?
In some respects the episodes released on the first DVD box sets are a “pure” archive. I, of course, use that word to indicate that the DVDs feature solely the episodes. They lack the trappings of contemporary DVD television box sets: director commentary, actor reflections, outtakes/bloopers, deleted scenes, etc. These are, presumably, episodes as originally broadcast, but without commercials.
In rare instances, university and non-profit archives episode copies are couched within revealing bits and pieces of the commercials that aired as part of the flow of the original All in the Family broadcasts. Noting which advertisements appeared along with particular broadcasts offers clues to linking shifts in the show’s content and advertisers’ presumed demographics. If, as Todd Gitlin posits, commercials “get us accustomed to thinking of ourselves and behaving as a market rather than a public, as consumers rather than citizens,” ((Todd Gitlin, “Television’s Screens: Hegemony in Transition,” American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives, ed. Donald Lazere (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987), 247.)) then viewing the commercials aimed at Lear’s 1970s audience are key to understanding how social movement ideals passed through his sitcoms, their accompanying adverts, and on to All in the Family’s presumed citizens/viewers/consumers.
The 1974 episode “Gloria’s Shock” finds Mike outlining his social and environmental reasons for not wanting to have children. Gloria’s takes offense that Mike has apparently made a decision about their reproductive choices on his own and she asserts equal partnership in their marriage decisions. Edith’s essentialist ideas about motherhood and grandmotherhood are interjected as an emotional response to Mike and Gloria’s leftist take on their personal-as-political dilemma. And Archie resolves to simply toss Gloria’s birth control over the neighbor’s fence, thus, undermining the couple’s political convictions and autonomy in favor of his desired patriarchal and grandfatherly outcome.
This debate about reproduction and social responsibility sits alongside advertisements featuring: Ricardo Montalban tempting the family man viewer with the new Cordoba (“The Small Chrysler”); the Yellow Pages inviting the entire family to “let your fingers do the walking;” a diverse (for the 1970s) group of men in workshirts touting Aqua Velva (because “there’s something about an Aqua Velva Man”); Dentu Crème promising to whiten false teeth and give its customers’ back their smiles; Prince Machabelli promising young couples an Aviance night; and Playtex letting liberated women know that “support can be beautiful”–if it comes from a bra.
The range of advertisements for this one episode speak to All in the Family’s many hoped-for publics and become necessary to a project seeking to trace the circulations of social change discourses beyond the text of the sitcom.
In the age of interactive media, Lear’s anti-hero is taken out of the context of debate where his bigotry is momentarily neutralized, if not cure. What one finds most often in YouTube clips and TVLand excerpts are Archie’s more virulent and sensational racist expressions. In, for example, a TVLand clip headlined, “A Lesson in Chinese,” while Archie claims his use of the word “chink” as typical for him and people he knows, Edith innocently and consistently reveals the many contexts in which Archie expresses his anti-Asian sentiment: “chink food,” “the chinky laundry,” “gooks.” Mike’s objection that Archie erases the distinctions amongst Asian cultures is easily overridden by the humor of hearing matronly Edith repeat Archie’s offensive words.
Most full episodes end with Archie chagrined, if not a changed man, but in new media clips, Archie always gets the last word. Such reproductions and remixes of Archie’s worldview, maintain the circularity of the sitcom genre. Barry Langford notes that the “sitcom traditionally depends heavily on an unusual degree of circularity and even stasis in its basic situation.” ((Barry Langford, “ ‘Our usual impasse’: the episodic situation comedy revisit,” in Bignell, Jonathan and Stephen Lacey, Popular Television Drama: critical perspectives (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005): 15.)) All in the Family’s structure, as Lear and the show’s writers structured it, established an ongoing dilemma from week to week: Archive’s bigotry versus Mike’s liberalism. The end of All in the Family episodes will usually find Archie conceding some ground on his bigotry, but not admitting defeat, through tight close-up and a “what are ya gonna do?” expression. However, excerpting the series for YouTube and other web-based contexts gives the impression that Archie’s bigotry is a resolution and point of closure for the viewer. Mike’s, Gloria’s, and Edith’s response along a continuum of liberalism are generally excised or overridden without Lear’s closing shot of Archie’s comeuppance.
Similarly, but providing even greater room for analysis are the comments posted to Archie Bunker YouTube video clips. Less observant than the archives and DVD episodes of the overall comedic mastery of Lear and his cast, these clips focus exclusively on Archie-as-icon and highlight his bigotry and historical truth. Pulled from a season five episode, “Judging Books By Covers,” a clip that circulates on YouTube and beyond has been relabeled, “England is a Fag Country.”
Despite this homophobic and nationalist assertion that Archie ascribes to a friend of Mike’s, as the episode develops, it is in fact a dear, longtime, manly drinking buddy of Archie’s that turns out to be the “fag.” This resolution and challenge to Archie’s homophobia is entirely absent in this YouTube clip. Instead, the England-as-fag-country clip is hotlinked and replicated across the web to make Archie’s words appear as the declarations of an historical American figure on par with a political or great intellectual thinker. So much so that, on a white supremacist website, one poster is able to co-opt Lear’s character to query, “I’m sure most of us remember the old 70s sitcom All In The Family. One thing I remember from this show is that Archie used to always say that ‘England is a country full of fags’. Is this true?” ((Dennis Garrett, “Is England a Country Full of Fags?,” Vanguard News Network Forum, July 15, 2007. http://www.vnnforum.com/showthread.php?t=52492.)) Based on the prevalence of the clip on the web, it’s doubtful that this poster has, for thirty-six years since its first airdate and syndication, held onto this nugget that he and his fellow posters deem true. Far removed from Lear’s original intent, the comments that continue to build from first post to today are revelatory of public debates that range from the validity of homophobic views to whether “England is a fag country” because of its nationalized health care to disproportionately hostile debates over same-sex marriage. Archie’s comments are frozen in YouTube amber, but the debates that his comments spark riff on contemporary, hot button social issues. The re-use of Lear’s original material, taken out of context and removed from the rest of the Bunker’s condemnations, finds new life as historical truth through classic television on the web.
Useful in considering these different sources for All in the Family is Lauren Rabinovitz’s observation that television critics and scholars tend to juxtapose text and context. Television reviews, contemporary affairs magazine articles (e.g. Newsweek, Jet), limited scholarly studies, and an insightful 200th episode special featuring viewers’ perspectives make up the data for gauging the show’s impact at the time. All in the Family’s life on DVD, in syndication and on the web, and the ways in which the text resonates with contemporary viewers as noted through their comments, threatens to overshadow vague traces of viewer response to the show when it first aired in the 1970s. Most useful will be consistently rethinking the text-to-context relationship and instead examining the tensions between this one text and the many sociopolitical contexts in which the show finds new life and Archie Bunker (as opposed to the actor Carol O’Connor) finds new admirers.
If sitcom writers continue to call upon Archie Bunker as the prototype for America’s newest “lovable bigots”–South Park’s Eric Cartman, Family Guy’s Peter Griffin–under rubrics of political correctness backlash or satire, its imperative to backtrack and understand not only Archie’s historical context, but also the contemporary archival context in which Archie’s views are remembered and reproduced. ((Whether obliquely references in character (Eric Cartman) or opening credits (Family Guy), Archie lives on. Julie Rovner, Eric Cartman: America’s Favorite Little $@#&*%,” NPR: Weekend Edition Saturday, April 5, 2008. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89375695.)) Across the spaces, places, and formats of archives, notions of “completeness” and archival “purity” continue to breakdown and reconstitute along with All in the Family’s audience and interlocutors.
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